The U.S. Men’s Goalball team entered this tournament drawn in arguably the most difficult group of the tournament, full of medal contenders. At the end of the tournament, Team USA finishes the tournament with a silver medal, hopeful about the future.
Emerging from the ‘group of death’ with a 2-2 record, U.S. Men survived a quarterfinals knockout round against Germany and beat host nation Brazil in the semifinals for a chance at gold in the finals against Lithuania, a team that boasts medal finishes in the last four Paralympic Games.
It took Lithuania nearly 7 minutes into the first half but they broke through the U.S.’s wall of defense with a fast pitch from Genrik Pavliukuanec. Four more goals from Lithuania followed in the next 3 minutes with the U.S. only returning one – a bounced ball by Andy Jenks. What started as clean back and forth nearly resulted in a mercy until Team USA brought in fresh bodies to keep the team alive in the second half.
In the second half, Lithuania continued to extend their lead with the audience fearing a mercy when the score hit 9-1 with nine minutes left in the game. Substitutions were called and starter, John Kusku, was replaced by first-time Paralympian Matt Simpson. Simpson scored with eight minutes left to keep Team USA alive and ignite a second fire in the rest of the team. Tyler Merren followed with a fast pitch down the middle, bringing the score to 4-10. Lithuania scored again but Jenks returned the favor making the score 5-11 with 6 minutes left.
Team USA made another substitution, bringing in Daryl Walker who scored twice before Lithuania could break through U.S. defense again. In the last two minutes, Lithuania was able to score three more times and the U.S. just once by Joe Hamilton. A final score of 8-14 solidified Team USA’s hard-earned silver medal finish.
“That team is a really good team,” said Simpson. “They’ve been at this game for a really long time. It’s their time. It’s an honor to play against those guys and I couldn’t be happier for them, even though we’re at the wrong end of it.”
Team USA may not have finished on the top of the podium as they had hoped but to get there, the team showed incredible endurance, passion and a defensive strategy different from any other team on the court.
“I’m very proud of this team,” said Legé. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity. We didn’t make the London Games so it was an uphill battle from there, not being able to qualify after Beijing’s fourth place finish.”
With three first-time Paralympians on the team and a relatively new assistant coach, Matthew Boyle, Tokyo looks promising.
“Matt Boyle has done an awesome job putting together a game plan,” said Lege. “He’s the heart of the team and I’m very proud of how he has led this team on and off the court.”
This win qualifies U.S. Men for the 2018 IBSA World Championships in Malmo, Sweden which will be their first opportunity to qualify for Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.